Have you ever felt a sudden stab of pain in your back that leaves you immobilized? Welcome to the club. About 31 million Americans hurt their backs each year. In fact, the annual health care cost for back pain is estimated to be as high as $24 billion, with additional billions in lost workdays. Learn how to keep such problems from coming back.
Studies have shown that once you suffer a back injury, you’re four times more likely to sustain another. Fortunately, back injuries are not usually serious—about 70 to 90 percent of them are caused by muscle or ligament strain, often stemming from weakness in the lower back. Although many people are afraid to workout after they’ve “wrenched” their backs, regular exercise is the best defense against re-injury.
A comprehensive program for your back should include three elements: stretching, aerobics and strength training. Stretching warms up your muscles and increases flexibility. Aerobic activity can improve your overall fitness and help you shed excess weight, which puts stress on your back. Strengthening your arms, legs and abdominal muscles will help take pressure off your back when you lift or carry heavy objects.
Here are some general tips on how to start an exercise program:
• Begin slowly. Your back muscles may be weak and susceptible to injury if you’re out of shape. Pace yourself. As you get stronger, work up to 15 minutes of exercise a day.
• Chose your exercises carefully. If you have had back problems in the past, choose low-impact exercises which are less stressful on your joints. Generally, swimming and other water exercises are safest because they put minimal strain on your lower back. Also, workouts on a stationary bike, treadmill or cross-country ski machine are less jarring to your back than running on a hard surface. If you want to bicycle, have an expert in a bike shop make sure the height of the seat and handlebars is adjusted for proper posture while pedaling.
• Avoid high-risk moves. People who’ve had previous back attacks should beware of movements that cause an exaggerated stretch of the back muscles. Sports that involve a lot of twisting (like golf), quick stops and starts (like tennis, racquetball and basketball) and contact sports (like football and wrestling) pose the greatest risks to your back. If you want to participate in such activities, practice modifying risky moves. For example, in golf try shortening your back-swing, or in basketball try keeping your torso in a straight line with your hips as much as possible.
The following exercises can help stretch and strengthen your back and supporting muscles. As little as 15 minutes of exercise a day can help. If you already have back problems, consult your doctor before you begin any routine.
1) Knee to Shoulder. Lie on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent and feet flat. Bring one knee toward your chest with both hands. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Then return to starting position and repeat with opposite leg. Do three to five repetitions on each leg.
2) Side Stretch. Stand with feet apart and both hands on top of your head. Bend sideways and slightly forward until you feel tension along the opposite side of your body. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds while inhaling and exhaling deeply. Do three to five repetitions on each side.
3) Chair Stretch. Sit in a chair. Slowly bend forward toward the floor until you feel a mild stretch in your back. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat three to five times.
4) Cat Stretch. Get on your hands and knees. Hold your back level with the floor. Round your back upward like a dome as you breathe out slowly. Return to a level position breathing in. Then slowly let your back and abdomen sag toward the floor, breathing out slowly. Repeat five times.
1) Sit-up. Lie on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent and feet flat. Reach toward your knees with your hands outstretched until your shoulder blades lift off the ground. Hold for a few seconds and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat five to 10 times.
2) Leg Lift. Lie face down on a firm surface with a large pillow under your hips and lower abdomen. Keeping your knee bent, raise your leg slightly off the surface and hold for about five seconds. Do the same with your other leg. Repeat five to 10 times with each leg. Then, repeat the exercise with your leg straight. Raise one leg slightly off the surface and hold for about five seconds. Do the same with your other leg. Repeat five to 10 times for each leg.
3) Roll-up. Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tighten the muscles in your buttocks and tilt your pelvis until your lower back touches the floor. Hold for five seconds and repeat 10 times.
4) Lateral Leg Lift. Lie on your side on a firm surface with your legs straight. Cushion your head with one hand and use the other for balance. Raise both legs two to four inches off the ground and hold; then slowly raise and lower the upper leg. Repeat five to 10 times on both sides.
Tender Care for Your Aching Back
Even though back pain can be alarming, most strained backs can be healed with simple home remedies.
Apply cold, then heat. Immediately after an injury, apply an ice pack for about 20 minutes three or four times a day for the first day or two. Once the acute pain subsides, switch to applications of heat.
Over-the-counter medications. Aspirin and ibuprofen can reduce both swelling and pain. Non-aspirin pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, only control pain. Check with your doctor if your are taking other medications.
Rest. If your back still hurts after two days of bed rest, see your doctor.
Resume physical activity. A couple of days of bed rest can help speed healing, but after two or three days of inactivity, muscles may begin to weaken. Start a low-impact aerobic activity, such as walking, bicycling or swimming, as soon as possible.
There are instances where do-it-yourself measures are not adequate. See a physician immediately if back pain is severe, if it’s the result of a fall or accident, if you have osteoporosis, or any of the following signs:
• Pain that does not go away after two days of rest.
• Numbness, weakness or tingling down the leg.
• An inability to move your toes.
• Loss of bladder or bowel control.